Cuban Experience – Crossing the Darien Gap

What i’m about to tell you is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

No extravagant exaggerations, no wild hyperbole. This is real.


As you know we have been matched with a shipping partner that will share a container with us. But we were unable to meet until the night before we pack the cars.

Fernando, Martha and Maple (their dog) drove to Colon to introduce themselves and chat about our plans. At some point in the conversation they informed us that we need to ship our cars with minimal amount of gasoline.

“damn it…i just filled up all the way!”

Honestly, we were so shocked at Costa Rica’s gas prices (~$4/gal), that we couldn’t resist that cheap Panama gas (~$2.25/gal).


Okay, no problem, we just siphon it out…all 40 gallons of it!

Unfortunately, the filler neck i installed for filling two gas tanks…doesn’t allow you to siphon anything out. Maybe its not necessary to ship with empty tanks? Quick call to the shipping agent confirmed our destiny for the night. No gas in the car!

Just imagine this – 40 gallons and the only way to get rid of this gas is by driving. Our Hodori gets 12 mpg….so thats 480 miles that we need to drive in one night…we haven’t driven that much in one day since we left.

“woooooosaaaaaaaah”…”calm down Ivan”, lets think rationally for a moment.

  1. They cant check the fuel level in the secondary gas tank  – okay thats 15 gallons we can save – 25 left.
  2. Lets see what the gauge says – okay we actually have used about an 1/8th of the tank – thats ~4 gallons less – leaves us with 21 gallons of fuel that we need to use up.

hmmm…21*12 = 252 miles! now, that’s doable.

The only problem is that there is a freeway, but we cannot get on it without a special pass that we couldn’t obtain on the spot.

We had to drive around the city as much as we could. We started by going around and around the Gatun locks, but the road was in such a bad condition that we could barely drive above 30 mph.

I got so fed up with this that I decided to risk the fines and tickets and got on to the freeway.

Luckily we found a semi-legal turn around spot that we could go through without paying a toll.

Our onboard computer told us that it was 0.5 gallon one way and 0.5 gallon the other way.


I tried to drive as fast as possible…i didn’t care anymore, just needed to be done with this stupid waste of our time.

Many, many, many trips back and forth and 6 hours later we finally managed to use up all the gas headed back to the hotel. Grabbed some food and went to sleep.


Next morning bright and early we met up with Boris, our shipping agent. But our shipping partners were nowhere to be seen. After an hour we started to get worried and tried to find wifi to see if they have sent an email.

yes…yes they did…”hi, guys. we have a problem…we tried to rent a car and all our cards got blocked…can we borrow $300 to pay for the shipping?”

“okay, fine…just get here asap!”

Finally, a few hours later we were all together and ready to start the process.


Walking to do car export paperwork.


Omg, paperwork done in 5 minutes, when you have an agent working with you!


“Be safe Hodori, we will see you in South America!”


Starting to get really attached to our home of wheels.


The loading is very fun actually. Since there is no loading dock, we had to use a tow truck.

You drive onto the bed.


Then the guy picks you up and moves you to the container opening.


Carefully positions you, to align with the container opening. It felt weird to be sitting behind the wheel and being moved without your will.

I wanted to steer the tow truck as it was backing up…only to realize how silly that was.


There seems to be a little height issue…


Nevermind, the guy used some wood blocks and the tow arm to lift the whole truck up.



There was not much space left…i had to climb out of the door to the roof.. that was the only space big enough to let me through.


Fernando, very excited to finally load his car.



All done. The cars were secured inside the container with wood blocks and straps.


Container sealed and we are done with shipping on the Panama’s side.


Maple (Martha’s dog) not sure if she is happy about the car going into the container.

Done with the container, we got out of Colon as fast as we could. Back to Panama City.


Waterfront and downtown of the new Panama city.


Panorama for better perspective.

If you look the other way, you have the old Panama city.


The old town looks nice from a distance, but getting closer to it we decided against venturing in the heart of it at night.


Btw, this is Panama’s flag. Hyein pointed out that it looks like something that I child would draw. To me it seems like something from “Alice in Wonderland” books or movies… Either way, not very creative panama…and not even symbolic.


Fernando and Martha, enjoying the evening after a hectic day.


It was getting dark so we decided to head back to the hotel.

At this point we were informed that the hotel does not allow dogs. And previous nights Maple slept in their Hummer.

Since we were leaving early in the morning we had to return the rental car that night. And the only option was to sneak Maple into the hotel room.


We had to put poor Maple into a backpack, hide her and quickly go to the room.

TRUST ME…getting her into the backpack was the most difficult part.


Finally, nice and snug in the backpack…nowhere to escape.


Getting more comfortable!



I’m not sure what the passerby’s thought of us during this whole process.


Safely and stealthily in the hotel room. Maple drank 2 liters of water, mostly from being nervous i think.

At this point i think it is appropriate to let you in on our plan of getting to Cartagena, Colombia to meet up with our cars.

Due to the fluid (haha…water pun) nature of marine shipping, we could not be sure of our exact departure dates from Panama. So we didn’t buy any plane tickets. And by the time we finalized our plans, the cheapest tickets available were $600 for a 1 hour flight.

Fernando came up with a plan that we would take a boat from Panama to Colombia. This would involve getting up at 4:30 am, driving to the Atlantic coast in a 4×4 truck, then taking a pleasant boat ride through the carribean island for the day and getting safely and pleasantly to Colombia. And it would cost about ~$200 per person. Sounds like a deal. Lets do it!

Next morning – sneaking Maple out of the hotel room.


Just look at the face!


Maple is true adventurer.


On the way to the port. Aaaaand, i finally shaved. Looks better, right?


Our ride for the morning was a Land Cruiser…same year too. Except it was diesel, manual gearbox and came with two gas tanks stock. Why can’t we have nice things in US?




When we got to the little port, it looked like an offroad gathering, with all kinds of 4×4 around you.



We didn’t know this before, but there is an independent nation within Panama, located on the Atlantic Side, called Kuna Yala. And we would be taking off from their port.

Its not like the Vatican, where you just waltz in from Rome. Our passports were checked and we had to pay an entrance/visa fee of $20. Very official.

Kuna Yala or Guna Yala is home to indigenous group called Guna – more at In the recent past they got tired of Panama’s government, expelled all the police force and started to rule themselves.


So these people prefer to live on the San Blas islands and not on the mainland. And before we could sail off to Colombia, we had to take a little ride to one of the islands, where we would be picked up by a different boat.



Ready for the first boat ride.


Excited to get going 🙂

About 5 minutes later we arrived on the first island, unloaded at some house and were told to wait 30 minutes for our next boat.


Yup, you are correct, thats a toilet. And thats the Caribbean right below it…all open water. The islands are so small and so heavily populated that i guess it makes sense to use the sea as a natural sewage treatment plant. There is no space for an actual plant.

While waiting we decided to stroll around the island and have a look-see.


Little convenience store.

The houses on the island are mostly made from bamboo with thatched roofs. The streets are narrow and women wear traditional clothing.





On the periphery of the island, each house has a dock for small boats and toilets.

After more than 2 hours of waiting we were informed that there will be no boat today and maybe there will be a boat tomorrow morning.

Shit…now this beautiful native village is going to be our home for the night. All the rustic appeal flew out of the window – were do we sleep, eat and get clean water?

Okay, conveniently we could rent a bed upstairs for $5 per night.


Not the most luxurious accommodations we ever had…but beats sleeping in the street.


Apparently we even have a view from our rooms, all for the low low price of $5.


Someone brought an iguana from the mainland. I’m not sure if it is a pet or a future dinner…

We decided not to wait around to find out and went to get actual food in a little restaurant.


Next morning woke up to this amazing view. Ready to get on our boat and get going.

The boat showed up at 9:30 and not at 7am like promised. Everything seems to be running on Latin time…a mysterious time zone that has no correlation to real world time.


The boat had enough space for 3 crew at the back and 12 seats (3 rows of 4). We first needed to drop off a couple of Canadian guys on a beautiful island.

The ride took only 30 minutes, but that was enough to get us completely drenched.



Amazing little island, absolutely post card worthy. Palms, beaches and clear water…notice the absence of “marine” toilets?


The first part of the trip was a bit sketchy, the little boat felt heavy and the water seemed closer than necessary.

With a lighter boat and heart we set off towards our final destination – Puerto Obaldia.

I thought that now with the lighter boat we would just skim across the surface of the water and be there in no time.

And at first, it was a joy to blast through the calm water between the islands. The boat would hit a wave and launch into the air to a unanimous screams and laughter of the passengers.

With each wave the laughter and screams of joy grew louder and then suddenly…the boat became silent.

We were in the open sea, we came out from the protection of the island.

Now, the waves were 4-5 meters tall and the only time anyone was screaming…because we knew this might be the last wave.

I looked at my watch…1 hour since the Canadian drop. The trip was estimated at 6 hours – 5 more hours to go.

Too pass the time and cool the nerves I would look around at the beautiful scenery. And it truly was beautiful.

Amazing island, great weather, warm sun. Even the water splashing your face seemed to hit you at the exact time when you could not handle any more heat from the sun.

You could feel the salty water on your lips and your face tingling.

At hour 2, the waves became more frequent and erratic. Captain had to work the engines hard to position the boat on the waves, so we would not flip over.

Yes, i thought we would flip over…i thought it was inevitable. Most of the time, i tried to figure out what to do if that actually happened.

Which way would i swim…to shore or to an island? Is the beach sandy or rocky?

Hyein will most likely panic and inhale a bunch of seawater…i would need to make sure she is calm before attempting to swim in either direction.

Where was the last inhabited island?

This is how i occupied the rest of my time on the journey…for a total of 8 hours.

By the time we landed in Puerto Obaldia, i was happy to be alive. My face was on fire from sunburn and salt. My ass was raw from bouncing on wooden bench for 8 hours…

But we were ALIVE!

As you can imagine we could not take many photos, as we were holding on for our dear lives…so just trust my verbal account.


By the time we arrived at Puerto Obaldia, where we needed to get our passports stamped out of Panama, the immigration office was closed.

Another unplanned night in a little unknown place.

Btw, the little town is overrun with Cubans…there is a whole tent city built just for them. This is the second time we saw the Cuban immigration wave. (first was in Costa Rica/Nicaragua border).

They are stuck in Panama, waiting to move hopefully to US or if that fails then anywhere else.

Because of the Cubans, it was hard to find a place to sleep. And the only place we got was just a dirty mattress in a cement room…but at least there was a shower 🙂




I dont think I, Hyein, Fernando, Martha or our new boat friends, Remy and Kaori, really minded the place. Everyone was happy to be on land and with a place to crash for the night.

Quick dinner and a beer to fall asleep. I hoped that the stress of the day would make me pass out for the whole night in this prison of a hotel. It was so hot that i fell asleep in just my underwear.

But the whole night i was being bitten…i reluctantly put on pants, shirt, and socks. Still i would get bitten every time i moved.

I decided to lay still and try to sleep. That worked.

In the morning, Hyein woke up looked at me and picked off an ant from the bed. Then she opened her sleepy eyes and told me there is a million ants on my bed.

Aahaa…thats what it was last night. The ants made a trail from my feet to my head to my backpack which i was using as a pillow.

I looked inside and found a spilled energy drink. The boat ride was too rough…broken the aluminum can.

There was about 100 ants on my bed and another 20 dead under me. IT’S SHOWER TIME!

Got our passports stamped and ready to move to the neighboring port in Colombia – Capurgana.


Saying good bye to Panama and Darien Gap.



Definitely a bonding experience for all of us. From left to right: Remy (Canadian), Kaori (Japanese), Martha (Mexican), Fernando (Argentinian), Maple (dog, Mexican), Hyein (Korean) and Ivan (Russian)…our own little United Nations.


That’s the mysterious and dangerous Darien Gap behind us.


My personal farewell to the this place. I was lucky enough to experience this place. But please… BUILD A DAMN ROAD. Darien gap is home not only to indigenous tribes but also to narco’s, military groups, human kidnapping and trafficking. It is hard to access the place to secure it… a road would only help that!



A quick ride from Capurgana and we are on mainland Colombia – welcome to South America!

Exhausted, hungry, sunburnt, wet – but HAPPY to be in Necocli.

Now – food, long good byes and a bus to Cartagena to get our cars.




My final thoughts on the crossing:

  1. The cars did it in 20 hours from Colon to Cartagena
  2. It took us 2.5 days…with possible danger to life, ants, bugs and sunburn
  3. Would i recommend our marine route? Only if the weather is good. In our case weather sucked.
  4. Did we have fun?  Yes.
  5. Did we make new friends? Absolutely, yes!
  6. I was happy to get out of Panama. I didn’t find it that interesting. Panama city is good for a day and thats about it.


oooooh and we saw another russian car – UAZ 469 🙂



8 Comment

  1. Andrei says:

    Glad that you are alive! Happy New Year!

    1. says:

      Happy New Year… we are in the Southern Hemisphere NOW!!!

  2. qin-hong says:


    1. says:

      你好,覃老师! 谢谢您的关注。中美和南美旅行太好玩了。
      和当地人交朋友,学习新的文化是非常兴奋的。我们在厄瓜多尔! 我想你!!

  3. […] I hope this info helps people in the future to avoid them and if you need photos of their faces just look here – http://nomadicyear.com2016/01/cuban-experience-crossing-the-darien-gap/ […]

  4. […] small boats, kids playing on the water, houses on stilts, all very familiar. It’s just like Guna Yala in Panama, except the clothing is a bit different and the weather is […]

  5. Great share.

    Would you be ok if I reposted a sumary of this post on my Spanish blog? I’d definitely give you full credit for your work.

  6. […] reached by ferry in about an hour. The journey itself is luckily calm, quite and very boring. After Darien Gap crossing, i will take boring any day of the […]

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